I think, maybe, we’re not great at camping.
We’re at the point in the season where every weekend might be “the last nice weekend,” so we wanted to fit in one last camping trip before the rain sets in.
I like to think of camping as a peaceful, calm, stress-free experience (the Instagram camping experience, if you will); but camping is hard. You have to plan all of your food in advance (and look like the mother of toddlers when you buy all the snacks at the store). If you’re backpacking (like we were), you have to fit everything in a pack and carry it. And you’re going to get a terrible night’s sleep. Only once in my life have I had a glorious, painless, camping experience, which happened to be earlier this summer on Vancouver Island, when we were so exhausted from finishing a Half-Ironman a few days before and then hiking 10 miles to get to our campsite, that we slept for 12 hours. Every other camping trip has been a rough night’s sleep, as we’ve been kept awake by freezing temperatures, loud neighbors, the fear of a bear attack, or scorching heat and humidity.
All of this is to say, if camping is not for you, I totally get it. Camping is hard.
But camping, we went, to McNeil Point on Mount Hood.
I’ve only heard of McNeil Point from one person in our 3 years in Oregon, so I assumed it was a hike that ran under the radar. False. When we pulled into the parking area (after miles of gravel, pot-holed roads), there were at least 20 other cars already there. As Oregon’s resident crowd-haters, we were kind of bummed. And on the way up the mountain, we encountered more people than we’d seen on any trail all summer (I joked that I felt like we were at Multnomah Falls- the Disney World of Oregon). Several folks along the way told us they had seen several other backpackers on the trail, so I was starting to grow concerned that this would be a rowdy night on the mountain. Luckily, once we made it up to McNeil Point, we seemed to have the place to ourselves, probably because no one else was dumb enough to camp on the open face of a mountain (more on that later).
Anywho, back to the hike. The trail was lovely (if a little overcrowded). Most of the hike travels through old-growth forests, which are always beautiful. There’s an optional detour around Bald Mountain (it adds about 1/2-mile to your journey), and it should not even be optional. It was amazing and offered our first views of the mountain of the day. When the Pacific Crest Trail offers a split about 0.3 miles into your hike, take the trail to the right (take this map with you for easy navigation). You won’t regret it.
We only managed to get lost once along the trail (which is pretty good for us). When we came to this marker (right after a small pond area) that simply says “No camping in meadow,” we took the trail to the left because it looked more used. After wandering that way on an increasingly narrow trail, we turned back and discovered we should have gone to the right. I haven’t been able to find our mistaken trail on any of the maps, so who knows where we would have ended up?
This is one of those hikes where you are going to take 1,000 pictures because with each vista, you think, I’ll never get a better view of Mount Hood than this one. And then, the next vista is BETTER. And the process repeats again and again. It’s ridiculous, and you’re going to end up with 20 photos of your husband hiking, and then you’ll feel the need to post ALL of them on the internet. So, my apologies. But this is how it is.
After about 3.5 hours, somewhere around 5 miles, and 2,200 feet of elevation gain, we finally made it to McNeil Point and the cute little stone shelter that someone brilliantly built in the 1930s. The views from here are amazing, obviously, with Mount Hood rising behind the shelter, and the Sandy River valley below. Oh, and the views of Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, and Mount Adams aren’t bad either.
Pro tip: If you want to look really cool while backpacking, hang a pair of Nike sandals from the back of your pack so they dangle and kick around with every step. Also, be shorter than your pack so it looks like the pack just has a pair of legs.
Once the nice folks who took our photo left, we had McNeil Point mostly to ourselves. So we picked the campsite with the best views and set up shop. Eric even spent about an hour building up the rock wall next to the tent to help protect us from the wind (I was kind of busy eating my cheddar bunnies), which proved to be completely useless within a few hours. There are a bunch of these little wind breaking walls spread out along the side of the mountain, so we assumed they would serve a purpose. We were wrong. But more on that in a bit.
We hiked up the trail just a bit further, which was ridiculously difficult to these folks who aren’t used to high elevations (we were a little above 6200-feet), so we’d get out of breath within a few steps. Looks like I’ll need to do a little acclimating before living on a mountain.
We bundled up and watched the sunset (which was a little after 6 pm, for those of you suffering through the arrival of short days with us) while we ate our dinner, before retiring to the tent for some cards and reading. After about an hour of relaxation in the tent, the wind, which had been pretty intense while we were outside the tent, grew in strength. If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that wind is my least favorite weather pattern. It’s just the worst. So, here we are in our tent, possibly alone on Mount Hood (we think there were some people camping in the shelter below), with some of the most intense winds I can remember swirling all around us. Something to know about our tent: This is not a fancy backpacking tent. Eric bought this tent for me as a high school graduation gift 9 years ago. It cost about $40, is not particularly light, and is really made for car camping or backyard sleepovers. We, of course, have used it to camp all over the country, and this was its third backpacking trip of the season. Anyway, this tent is amazing and has served us well. But I was pretty sure this was the night our little tent was going to die.
The winds were whipping through our nylon tent like there was no tomorrow. We really thought the top of it might just fly off into the night. I was certain the poles were going to snap. After coming to the conclusion that the winds weren’t going to die down, we opted to move our tent to another spot that was slightly less exposed. Of course, at this point, it’s dark (luckily, we had a full moon to help us out), so we strap on our headlamps, put everything back into our packs, and walk them over to other site (lots of heavy breathing was involved, as we had to hike up to get down- remember that fun elevation). Once we got over there, we could hear the wind tearing through our tent (I can’t paint a picture of what wind sounds like as it pummels nylon, but it’s very, very loud). Eric was sure we were about to see our tent fly down the mountain in front of us, so he ran back to the tent to catch it. Luckily, it was still there by the time I mosied my way over (that altitude…really slowing me down). We didn’t want to pack it all back up, so we just disconnected the poles and kind of wrapped everything into a bundle to walk it back to the new site.
Somehow, after setting up the tent, we lost our tent stakes. And if there’s one thing you need on a windy night, it’s stakes to hold your tent into the ground. So we put all of our stuff into the tent, hoping that would weigh it down, and began the headlamp-lit search for the stakes, walking back and forth on the path we took between the two sites. Nothing. During this time, our tent has leapt into the air several times, proving that this site isn’t much better than the last.
My genius engineer of a husband opted to put big rocks in all the corners of the tent, inside and out, to hold it in place. This seemed like a solid solution, especially once we were in the tent to weigh it down too. But the winds persisted. I honestly don’t know which was more terrifying: the sound of the wind on our tent, or the sight of the walls slamming around. A while after we attempted to go to sleep (like we were going to get any sleep), the tent collapsed on us.
At this point, we wondered whether or not we should pack up, hike a mile or so down the mountain to camp beneath the tree line, or just pack up and hike back to the car. But Eric bravely left the tent and did some more rock packing, securing the poles with more rocks and tightening everything up. So we stayed. A little while later, the tent collapsed again. I have to say, I didn’t really mind the tent collapsing, as it just kind of felt like another cozy blanket (with some poles attached). Eric left the tent again and used some ropes to tie things down (as I write this, I realize what a useless camper I am) before returning for a lackluster night of sleep.
I am always a terrible sleeper when camping (with the exception of our magical Della Falls trip), so my mind wandered quite a bit as the wind ripped through our tent. Here’s a little rundown of my thoughts:
- We’re camping on the mountain. This is awesome.
- This is so loud.
- Even with my earplugs, this is so loud. Maybe if I burrow completely into my sleeping bag, it won’t be as loud. Oh, that’s nice and warm. But I can’t breathe.
- What if I suffocate in my sleeping bag? Would I be able to tell that’s about to happen? Would I get out in time?
- I am so wrapped up in this sleeping bag that I can’t get out. Oh, well.
- What if the winds throw our tent down the mountain? That violates all the “leave no trace” principles I believe in.
- Would we get in trouble if we couldn’t find our tent?
- I have to go to the bathroom.
- It’s too windy to go to the bathroom.
- I wonder if Eric is still awake.
- I hope Mount Hood doesn’t erupt tonight. (For those of you who don’t know, Mount Hood is an active volcano, and we’re apparently overdue for a catastrophic eruption.)
- Would they know in advance if Mount Hood was going to erupt? Surely they would have stopped us from hiking here.
- If Mount Hood erupts, could we outrun the lava?
- I doubt any animals would be out in this wind, so at least I don’t have to worry about bears. (Usually, when we camp, I worry about bears, but I Googled “bears on Mount Hood” before we left, and apparently they aren’t much of a problem.)
- I do remember reading about mice. I bet those mice want to get in our tent. I hope Eric zipped this thing all the way up.
- If our tent snaps in half and we have to hike down in the middle of the night, we’re not going to be able to get doughnuts on the way home. I really want doughnuts.
- If we just go home, we could sleep for a few hours, and then we’d probably deserve to go out to brunch. We could get doughnuts at brunch.
Eventually, I fell asleep. I only know this because I woke up really surprised that I had been asleep. And then I continued that for several hours. Sometimes, Eric and I would wake up at the same time, peek out of our sleeping bags, check what time it was, and then try to fall asleep again. It was an exciting night.
In the morning, we were rewarded with these views as we ate our oatmeal in our 4 layers of clothing. We could have sat there for hours watching the fog roll through the mountains. It was amazing. And totally worth the sucky, sucky night. By the time we packed up camp, the entire valley had filled with fog, which made for a crazy hike back down the mountain. We would hike through freezing patches of fog and then emerge into really warm, clear patches. Totally fascinating.
We timed our descent almost perfectly. It started raining about 10 minutes before we got back to the car, where it was 36 degrees and continued to pour rain for the rest of the day, so I can only imagine what it was like further up the mountain. Judging by the Mount Hood snow cams I’ve seen in the past 24 hours, our campsite probably has a hardy layer of snow by now.
For a post-hike (or post-backpacking) pick-me-up, let me enthusiastically recommend Joe’s Donut Shop in Sandy on your way back to Portland. It doesn’t look like much, but the doughnuts are FANTASTIC (which you know I don’t say lightly).
A few tips for hiking the trail to McNeil Point:
-NW Forest Pass required.
-The gravel road to the trailhead has a lot of potholes and gets pretty narrow, so take it nice and slow.
-For really good directions and a printable map, check out Outdoor Project’s guide.
Here’s to Mount Hood!